A LITTLE MORE than 8 years ago, as the 20th century gave way to a new millennium, the

Daily News

compiled top-10 lists of Philadelphia athletes in various sports. Former middleweight champion Joey Giardello was rated as the fourth-best Philadelphia fighter of all time.

In retrospect, that rating might have been a bit low.

"He was the greatest middleweight ever to come out of this city, I don't care what anybody says," longtime Philadelphia promoter J Russell Peltz said upon learning that Giardello - whose real name was Carmine Tilelli - had passed away at age 78. "Joey didn't duck anybody and he never backed down from anybody. He was one of the few white fighters who fought all the tough black fighters."

Giardello's health had been deteriorating for some time when the end came at 12:30 p.m. yesterday at the Cadbury Rehabilitation Center in Cherry Hill.

"He went very peacefully," said Steven Tilelli, one of Giardello's four sons. "My father had congestive heart failure and diabetes. He developed two big blisters on his feet that progressively worsened because of the diabetes. It got so bad, it could have resulted in amputation. The infection had gone all the way down to the bone.

"That's when we discovered he was not going to make it. Our family decided not to take any extraordinary measures that might have kept him alive a while longer but would have only prolonged his suffering."

Admitted to Cadbury for a second time last Friday, Giardello - a longtime parishoner of Queen of Heaven Roman Catholic Church in Cherry Hill - was administered the last rites several days ago, but he hung on until as many out-of-town relatives as possible were able to get to his bedside. All of his immediate family, with the exception of one grandchild, were in the room when the end came.

"Pops made it into the championship rounds again, and he won," Steven Tilelli said, using a familiar boxing metaphor to describe Giardello's tenaciousness in life as well as in the ring.

And Giardello - the name of a friend's older cousin, whose birth certificate he used to enlist in the Army in 1946, as a 16-year-old - was nothing if not tenacious. A 1993 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native compiled a 100-25-8 record from 1948 to 1967, including 33 victories by knockout. Held to a controversial draw against middleweight champion Gene Fullmer on April 20, 1960, in Bozeman, Mont., a fight most observers believed Giardello deserved to win, he was denied a second shot at the 160-pound title for 3 1/2 years.

"I never thought I'd get another chance, so I had to fight all the guys that nobody else wanted to fight," Giardello said in 1993.

Giardello got his second shot at the championship on Dec. 7, 1963, when he was 33 and thought to be on the downhill side of his career. Not so; as a 4-1 underdog, he outboxed Nigeria's Dick Tiger over 15 rounds in Atlantic City to finally reach boxing's summit.

"That night, nobody could have beaten me," Giardello said.

Giardello retained the title once, beating Rubin "Hurricane" Carter on points at Philadelphia's Convention Hall, but relinquished it in his next bout, on a unanimous decision to Tiger.

It is the bout with Carter that brought Giardello controversial national attention in 1999, with the release of "Hurricane," a film perhaps too loosely based on Carter's life.

In the film, Carter, who is black, is depicted as savagely beating Giardello and then getting screwed on a racially motivated decision, as the crowd hooted in derision.

In truth, Giardello decisively defeated Carter and the decision for him was warmly applauded by pro-Giardello spectators in the champion's adopted hometown.

Convinced his legacy had been damaged by the misrepresentation, Giardello sued and was awarded a significant financial settlement. More important, the film's director, Norman Jewison, admitted on the DVD version of the movie that the scenes of the Giardello-Carter bout were not in keeping with what actually had transpired.

"Joey always put his family first," said Center City attorney George Bochetto, who represented Giardello. "He couldn't have cared less about the money. The lawsuit was never about money to him. The most important thing was getting a public acknowledgment from Rubin Carter and the director that the depiction of him was unfair, and he got that.

"In a sense, you can say that Joey won his last fight."

Apart from his accomplishments as a prizefighter, Giardello was hailed as a humanitarian. After his son Carman was born with Down syndrome, Giardello tirelessly worked to raise money and awareness for children with special needs.

Toward that end, he held boxing exhibitions in 1969 and '70 whose celebrity referees included former heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey, Jersey Joe Walcott and James J. Braddock, and he joined with Sargent and Eunice Shriver to help launch the Special Olympics in 1968.

"Joey was a great fighter, but a greater man," said Giardello's friend, Charlie Redner.

Giardello is survived by his wife of 58 years, Rosalie; sons Paul, Steven, Carman and Joey; grandchildren Steven Jr., Carmine, Gabriela, Joey and Michael; and daughters-in-law Denise and Barbara.

Funeral arrangements are pending, but Ed Brophy, executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., said the facility's flags would be flown at half-staff this week in tribute to Giardello's long and illustrious career. *